A green prism of his­tory held us for too long: now we take a wider view

By wear­ing a ‘sham­rock poppy’, Leo Varad­kar em­braced all those who were lost to dis­tant wars, writes Liam Collins

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - ANALYSIS -

FOR those of us in­doc­tri­nated with claus­tro­pho­bic na­tion­al­ism, see­ing Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar wear­ing the ‘sham­rock poppy’ in Dail Eire­ann last week, ahead of Re­mem­brance Sun­day to­day, was a mile­stone in our ma­tu­rity as a na­tion.

Sym­bols like flags and em­blems are im­por­tant in defin­ing one’s ‘tribe’, but now at last we are be­gin­ning to ac­cept that there are many strands to the na­tion we’ve be­come and re­mem­ber­ing the past is not about ex­clud­ing those who took a dif­fer­ent path.

Pos­si­bly be­cause he is some­thing of an out­sider him­self Leo Varad­kar has shown that he, un­like those who came be­fore him, is not weighed down by the heavy hand of his­tory.

He not only in­vented a new sym­bol, but apart from some half-hearted grum­blings from Sinn Fein, he did some­thing that would have been un­think­able not so long ago — he gained wide­spread ac­cep­tance for it.

His ‘sham­rock poppy’ came in the same week that diehard Repub­li­can Liam Sut­cliffe, the man who blew up Nel­son Pil­lar,’s in Dublin was buried. A land­mark that was only re­ally missed by Dublin­ers when it was gone, the de­mo­li­tion of the pil­lar was not only an act of van­dal­ism, but a dan­ger­ous one that could have cost many lives but for a bum­bling bomb-maker.

Sut­cliffe, a true be­liever to the end, also de­parted this world shrouded in sym­bol­ism — his cof­fin was draped in the Fe­nian flag, per­haps in­di­cat­ing that the Tri­colour now truly be­longs to those who ac­cept this peace­ful 26-county state.

Em­blems, whether they be the poppy or the Easter lily, are part of the wider Irish iden­tity. Each is a liv­ing sym­bol of the many fore­bears who fought for the “free­dom of small na­tions” or the more in­su­lar cause of Irish na­tion­al­ism.

For too long, the blood sac­ri­fice of those who lost their lives 100 years ago at Messines or Pass­chen­daele was de­lib­er­ately writ­ten out of Irish his­tory by bit­ter and blink­ered men.

The poppy came to be re­garded as a sym­bol of op­pres­sion and colo­nial­ism in Ire­land rather than what it re­ally is — a real con­nec­tion to those who died on those far for­eign fields, many of them need­less and sav­age deaths. While pic­tures of a cel­e­bra­tion of Ar­mistice Day in 1924 show thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered at Col­lege Green in Dublin, Ire­land’s in­creas­ingly po­larised par­ti­tion­ist poli­cies (fol­lowed by neu­tral­ity in World War II) quickly pushed those who fought in the Great Wars into the back­ground.

War memo­ri­als in many gar­ri­son Irish towns and on rail­way sta­tion walls were left ne­glected and largely for­got­ten. The won­der­ful Me­mo­rial Gar­dens in Is­land­bridge fell into near ruin. The Bri­tish Le­gion shrunk to groups of old men who met qui­etly so as not to draw at­ten­tion to them­selves.

They came to be re­garded as an ec­cen­tric relic of for­got­ten con­flicts. They didn’t fit in with the nar­ra­tive of the new Ire­land, ‘Gaelic and Catholic’ — that myth­i­cal land de­fined by look­ing back rather than for­ward.

The Trou­bles added to this iso­la­tion. I re­call be­ing with an Irish friend in Lon­don in the week lead­ing up to Re­mem­brance Sun­day some time in the mid-1980s and re­mem­ber that his re­sent­ment at English peo­ple wear­ing the poppy in their own coun­try was enor­mous and dis­con­cert­ing.

When he was Taoiseach dur­ing the 1987-1989 pe­riod, Char­lie Haughey re­fused to al­low Pres­i­dent Paddy Hillery, who had pri­vately ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion, to at­tend a Re­mem­brance Day ser­vice in St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral in Dublin.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, coali­tion min­is­ters Paddy Cooney and Barry Des­mond de­fied the con­sen­sus and went.

Things come in cy­cles and a new and more balanced in­ter­est in the past and our an­ces­try led Irish fam­i­lies to dis­cover and talk about those who fought and died (or lived) in for­eign wars as sol­diers in the Bri­tish Army. In­stead of bury­ing the past, an in­creas­ing num­ber of Irish peo­ple chose to cel­e­brate and com­mem­o­rate those men and women.

I grew up know­ing I had English re­la­tions imag­i­na­tively known as “the Le­ices­ters” (be­cause they lived in Le­ices­ter). It was only long af­ter I left school that I dis­cov­ered my grand­fa­ther’s brother was a mem­ber of the Royal Irish Con­stab­u­lary who left Ire­land af­ter in­de­pen­dence and sadly never re­turned.

The same hap­pened for many of those who joined the Bri­tish Army — they never re­turned, or when they did they did so qui­etly to a coun­try that had for­got­ten or be­grudged their sac­ri­fice.

All changed, to bor­row Yeats’s phrase, and changed ut­terly 30 years ago, shortly be­fore 11am on Novem­ber 8, 1987 — when on that Sun­day morning, the IRA det­o­nated a bomb inside the Read­ing Room ad­ja­cent to the ceno­taph in En­niskillen, blow­ing out the gable wall, killing 11 in­no­cent peo­ple and maim­ing and in­jur­ing many more.

It was by no means the worst atroc­ity dur­ing those times — but the bru­tal­ity and in­hu­man­ity of that act ex­posed, if ex­po­sure was needed, the cal­lous, fa­nat­i­cal and de­mented think­ing of a few men and women whose vi­sion of life and hu­man­ity was blink­ered by ha­tred in­grained in them from the day they were born.

En­niskillen was the mo­ment that broke down the bar­ri­ers be­tween civilised peo­ple, whether they be­lieved in po­lit­i­cal na­tion­al­ism and union­ism or nei­ther.

In the years that fol­lowed, through the work of a small but grow­ing group, Irish peo­ple be­gan to re­visit the past and see some­thing wider than the green prism of his­tory many of us grew up with.

We be­gan to recog­nise that many Ir­ish­men fought in, and died in, the great wars that made mod­ern Europe be­cause of their be­liefs and courage.

There are still peo­ple out there who want to ar­gue over the rights and wrongs of fight­ing for king or kaiser, or whether the poppy is a sym­bol of need­less slaugh­ter at the Somme, Pass­chen­daele, Ypres and other bloody bat­tles now con­signed to the his­tory books.

The fact is that the 16th Irish Divi­sion, which fought in these bloody en­coun­ters, was largely made up of Ir­ish­men — most of whom gen­uinely be­lieved they were fight­ing for the free­dom of small na­tions (even if el­e­ments of the higher ech­e­lons of the Bri­tish Army re­garded some of them, such as the 47th Brigade, as “riffraff Red­mon­dites”).

Death does not dis­crim­i­nate. To­day if you go to St Mary’s church­yard in Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary, you will find the graves of IRA men from the Fly­ing Col­umns, of Ir­ish­men who fought in the Bri­tish Army, and of oth­ers who served with the United Na­tions on peace-keep­ing mis­sions spread around the same ceme­tery.

When Leo Varad­kar walked into the Dail wear­ing the poppy on a green back­ground, he was in­clud­ing all those who have a con­nec­tion to those wars, those deaths and those hero­ics.

In the space of a cen­tury, we have come full cir­cle and most peo­ple have dis­carded the suf­fo­cat­ing sense of his­tory that im­pris­oned us in in­su­lar na­tion­al­ism in favour of a broader more hu­man­i­tar­ian view of life and death.

At least in some re­spects, we’ve grown up.

‘The sac­ri­fice of 100 years ago was writ­ten out of Irish his­tory’ ‘Most peo­ple have now aban­doned in­su­lar na­tion­al­ism’

LEST WE FOR­GET: Clock­wise from top, the af­ter­math of the no-warn­ing En­niskillen bomb; Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar’s sham­rock poppy in the Dail last week; the 16th Irish Divi­sion on the Somme dur­ing World War I

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